And I thought I knew my own country Indonesia

“Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation” by Elizabeth Pisani

Former Reuters journalist Elizabeth Pisani has been living in Indonesia for the majority of her adult life, stretching back since the 1980s.

She speaks fluent Indonesian, used to drive around Jakarta riding a motorcycle and now in this book she travels around Indonesia – from NTT, to the eastern islands around Maluku, to the big islands of Sulawesi, Sumatra, Kalimantan then the “main island” of Java – visiting the remotest regions, blending-in with the locals, even participating in numerous hard-labour works and various local festivals along the way (I’m still curious on what she did with that “request” in Mount Kemukus).

In every part of the nation that she visits, she describes the local customs, social hierarchy and economy in great detail. She also elaborates on the many problems facing with every single village, island and province – from corruption, exploitation, poverty, inequality, to transportation, infrastructure and even cultural problems.

And between the fascinating local stories she also give various facts, statistics and history of this great country to give us the bigger picture (“The ties that binds” chapter, in particular, is world class), and shows how the Indonesia that we thought we always knew, and the Jakarta-centric (and java-centric) one we see daily in national TV, is perhaps just 1/10th of the actual country.

Unlike any other western books on Indonesia – like special chapters in John Pilger’s New Rulers of the World, Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, and even Andre Vltcheck’s Indonesia: Archipelago of Fear – who tend to have a brilliant but one-sided view, Elizabeth Pisani can show both the good side and bad side of nearly everything Indonesian and then elaborate in great detail on how it work out in reality.

For example, the many corruptions in the country are rightly seen as a bad epidemic by many, but Pisani also acknowledged it as one of the unlikely ties that weirdly binds the nation together, as a “new normal” way of life, whether we like it or not. Furthermore, like many authors before her Pisani portrays founding father Soekarno as a great charismatic leader, but she also pointed out the messiness of his presidency later on that led to a hyperinflation. She also portrays the “32 years dictator Soeharto” as a great leader that brilliantly tied the diverse nations together for the first 20 years of his presidency, but started to look “dictatorial” (with every stereotypes that come with the label) after his kids grew up.

Indeed, reality is a hard-to-swallow concept for a complex country like Indonesia, where the line between right or wrong, and taboo or normal are often blurry. And in this book Pisani taught us that we need to see the many different issues facing the country from many unfiltered angles to really understand what the country is all about. The underlying truth about Dayak-Madura ethnic conflict in Kalimantan, the “religious” violence in Maluku, and the birth of Police-backed extremist group FPI, for instance, are different compared with the way the mainstream media are describing.

With that in mind, this book is truly an eye opener, a well-balanced Rosetta Stone for my Western-educated train of thoughts and values, which often struggles to understand the complex reality of my own country. Not anymore.